Stories one wonders whether to tell from the pulpit

(When I first posted what follows, I was in something of a rush and told only one of Bruce McIver’s wonderful stories. But now, later, I want to add a few things at the bottom.)

Recently, I was asked to speak before a “writers guild”–a fancy term for a dozen writers of every imaginable varietyand skill meeting in the Mandeville, LA, city hall around tables–on the subject of “writing humor.” The problem with that is instead of leaving the invitation open-ended (“as soon as you figure out how to do it”) they gave me a date and a time. So, I showed up and shared what material I had managed to pull together and filled the alloted time, although it was quickly clear to everyone that I had no idea what I was talking about.

The Q&A time which followed indicated that they didn’t know anything about the subject either, so no one left upset or disappointed as far as I could tell.

I did one truly smart thing, though. I took along Bruce McIver’s book “Stories I Couldn’t Tell While I Was a Pastor” and read from it. Published by Word in 1991, the book can be bought for a dollar plus postage at the usual online places.  I recommend it as the perfect gift for one’s pastor (perfect because the recipient will enjoy it heartily and the donor can get it cheap).

Bruce and I used to tease each other about our names which are pronounced the same (rhymes with beaver), but obviously, he misspelled his something awful.  But he was the dearest man with the most wonderful sense of whimsy. To know him was to adore him. Heaven is a more delightful place since he arrived.

Everyone has his/her favorite story from Bruce’s book. And since this is my blog, I get to share mine. My wife insists that I cut it down some, since Bruce loves to set stages and describe personalities. He really did have an incredible gift for writing and, doubtless, from his 30+ years pastoring Wilshire Baptist Church had perfected the art of stretching a short story out to sermon length.

Anyway, the story….

Bruce had been speaking at a youth camp all week and arrived back at home in Dallas late Friday afternoon. His wife Lawanna met him at the door, not as he had expected, with a “welcome home” or “we’ve missed you, honey.” She hissed, “Get me out of this house!” and then gave him a long litany of all that had gone wrong that week…the dog was sick, the babies (Shannon was 3 and Renie was 19 months) had dumped a can of comet cleanser in the bathtub while they bathed, the girls (there was an older daughter, too) had washed the car with the windows down and soaked the upholstery, the little ones had drawn on the walls with crayolas, on and on.

Lawanna was at her wit’s end.

Even before bringing his luggage into the house, Bruce called Mrs. Heed, the babysitter. She was a grandmotherly, godly lady from their church who adored “my babies,” as she called the little ones. Within a half hour, Mama Heed was on the scene.

While Lawanna was dressing, she called in to the living room to Bruce, saying the vet had sent over some pills for the dog. “You need to get one down him before we go,” she said.

Bruce said, “How do you get a dog to take a pill?”

Lawanna said, “Dr. Melton said you hold the dog down on the carpet, open his mouth, put the pill on the back of his tongue, then clamp his mouth shut. He’ll have to swallow it.”

The little girls considered this a spectacle worth watching and gathered around to see how daddy would accomplish this feat. Mrs. Heed sat on the couch taking it all in.

Bruce sat on the dog, put the pill in his mouth, clamped it shut, and waited. The dog coughed up the pill.

Shannon, the 3-year-old, jumped up and retrieved it.

Bruce tried it again.

Once again, the dog coughed out the pill.

Shannon chased it down, handed it to daddy, and he tried again, this time forcing it deeper into the dog’s throat.

Once again, the dog spat out the pill and curled his lip and snarled at Bruce.

It was at this point that 19-month-old Renie chose to speak her first complete sentence.

Now, get the picture. She’s squatting on the floor, her wet diaper sagging, and her attention completely given to what was transpiring in front of her.

Until that moment, this child had never put more than two words together–“no, no” or “love daddy,” that sort of thing. When Bruce expressed concern that something might be wrong with her, Lawanna assured him that when she had something to say, she would say it.

And now she did.

As the pill rolled under the couch and the dog snarled at her daddy, the toddler said,

“Take the pill, you damned dog.”

Bruce’s writes: “Shannon looked at me. I looked at the ceiling. Lawanna dashed out of our bedroom, still brushing her hair for our night out, and looked at everyone. Mama Heed looked at a blank spot on the wall…and giggled.”

End of story. No moral or anything.

I wish I had asked Bruce if he would have dared tell that from the pulpit and if so, what application he would have made of it. Would he have made sure the children were all out of the room? Would he have saved this for a church banquet when only leadership is present? Or would he have simply saved this for his book?

Personally, I think it’s obvious that grandmotherly godly Mama Heed has been speaking unkindly about this dog and the child absorbed it. And for me personally, that’s the use I would have found for the story. When talking with church workers, particularly those whose targets are children and youth, I would have used this story to say “they’re listening, whether you know it or not.” (But no, I’d never ever have used it in a sermon.)

A few shorter things from Bruce’s book….

1) A distraught mother called the pastor (Bruce, of course; none of these are recycled stories from others) upset because she had allowed another church to pick up her little girls on their Sunday bus route. They had come home soaking wet. She knew nothing about the church or the preacher or their doctrines, but had sent them along because it was so convenient. That morning the pastor had asked if the children wanted to go to Heaven.When they said they did, he baptized them–then sent them home dripping wet. “Pastor,” the woman said, “can you come over here right now and unbaptize them?”

2) Saturday morning about 10 am, Bruce was in his study, hard at work on tomorrow’s sermon when the phone rang. A young fellow asked for a few minutes of his time. “I’m about to get married and am having second thoughts about her.” When is the wedding? “At 2 o’clock this afternoon.” After they talked a while, Bruce said, “Sir, she’s the one you need to be talking to, not me. She’s getting dressed at this exact minute thinking she’s going to be married in three hours! Hang up the phone and call her.” Before the guy rang off, Bruce put in a request. “Let me know how this thing turns out.”

It was two weeks before the young man called to report in. “I phoned her and canceled the wedding,” he said. So, why had he waited so long to let Bruce know? “I just got back from the honeymoon. We’d already paid for everything, and it was non-refundable, so I went by myself. I had a ball.”

3) You’ve heard what follows as a joke, but Bruce says it happened to him. He brought a sermon from Matthew 22 where our Lord rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the “foal of an ass,” as I think the KJV puts it. In the sermon, he “has Jesus stopping the procession, getting off the ass, and ministering to people in the streets.”

And then, he did it.

Bruce said, “Ladies and gentlemen, if we’re going to do anything for God in this city, we’re going to have to get off our ass and minister to people in the streets!”

As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew he was in trouble. Why had he chosen to use the King James expression. He could have said donkey or colt or beast of burden.

In his book, Bruce takes a good two pages to describe the shock in the eyes of his people, the panic in his own mind, and the tittering of the little boys which eventually erupted into full-scale bedlam.

Prompted by that, Bruce gives us what he calls “McIver’s Rules for Those Who Bloop.”  Pastors, take note…

First, keep talking.  You realize you have misspoken, but if you talk fast enough people will wonder if they heard what they heard. So, smother your gaffe in a torrent of words.

Second, never apologize. “If you’ve dug a hole and fallen in, apologies and explanations usually serve only to dig a deeper hole.”

Third, never look at anyone. “This is important. No eye contact at all.” You have two alternatives, he says: look at the floor or at the ceiling.

That kind of verbal blunder–common to all public speakers, but particular preachers–is what keeps me praying Psalm 141:3. “Set a guard upon my mouth, O God. Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

In the introduction, Bruce asks the rhetorical question: “How does a pastor remain in one church for 30 years?” Answer: “By threatening to write a book entitled ‘Stories I Couldn’t Tell While I Was a Pastor.”

Thanks for doing this, Bruce. Can’t wait to see you in Heaven, my friend.

2 thoughts on “Stories one wonders whether to tell from the pulpit

  1. I have this book! I remember when I bought the book many years ago and decided to read it in bed before going to sleep. That was not a good idea because that night happened to be a Saturday night and I needed sleep so that I could be well rested for Sunday morning worship …but..I couldn’t put it down! I tried to stifle my laughter and hold back tears…to no avail. It was a good reading, even though I didn’t go to sleep until 2am. Thanks for reminding me. I think I’ll go get it off my bookshelf and read it again. But, since it is Saturday evening as I write this…I think I should wait until tomorrow afternoon to start reading LOL!

  2. Joe,
    Janice says I prayed yesterday at the end of the sermon, “Thank you Lord that You have made the Bible clear to us, except when it isn’t.” I’ve not listened to the tape, but likely she is right.

    She confessed she heard nothing else I said because she was trying very hard to hold back the laughter and didn’t think the properly pious folks would appreciate the pastor’s wife laughing during commitment time.

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